There’s plenty of arguing going on in America these days across the political divide, with the non-stop, 24-hour news cycle ratcheting up the tension and making it easy for people on both sides to argue over which stories are real and which are altered for an agenda. The new movie “Richard Jewell,” directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, shines a fascinating light on perhaps the first and most notorious example of how a media frenzy managed to get things so wrong it nearly ruined a man’s life.
Jewell was a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who discovered a suspicious backpack under a bench in the city’s Centennial Park amid a related concert attended by thousands. His eagle-eyed ability to spot the bag and his insistence on moving the crowds as quickly as possible from the scene before it exploded helped save numerous lives.
But when the FBI was pressured to find the bomber and couldn’t settle on a suspect quickly, agents used Jewell as a convenient scapegoat and tried to set him up for a media downfall and prison. The movie reveals how it all went down, serving as a timely reminder to not believe everything you see in the media – while also offering a portrait of friendship and family overcoming daunting circumstances.
“Jewell” opens on its namesake (Paul Walter Houser) in 1986, working as a sweet but socially awkward supply clerk in a large law firm who befriends a hot-headed attorney named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Richard reveals that his dream is to go into law enforcement, and he’s soon off to working as a college campus security guard – where he’s fired for being overly zealous about student partying.
A decade later, he’s working as a security guard at the Olympics when the notorious bomb goes off. At first, the media paints him as a hero, but his former college boss phones the FBI with his concerns that Richard was always looking for a big opportunity to save the day.
Suddenly, the lovable lug is swarmed by media in a wave of negative publicity after an unscrupulous agent (Jon Hamm) trades Jewell’s name as a tip to overly ambitious reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in exchange for sex. With his devastated mother (Kathy Bates) steadfastly at his side, and his old friend Watson determined to help clear his name, Richard has to make a stand.
The twists and turns from that point make for a jaw-dropping exploration of government overreach and media abuse, while also offering up a deeply human tale of a classic underdog. Writer Billy Ray injects the tale with some great moments of wit as Richard repeatedly confounds Watson by giving up way too much information too easily to the feds and shooting himself in the foot in the process.
Those humorous moments balance out some truly powerful moments, particularly from Houser and Bates as they each undergo breaking points. This is easily Bates’ best role in many years, and she’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, melding fierce dignity with heartbreaking frustration to create a portrait of a truly great mother in dire circumstances she barely understands.
Hamm is full of smarm as the FBI agent who tries to bend rule after rule to force closure on the case, while Wilde brings plenty of fire to her role as the reporter who unleashed hell upon Richard with her desire for the scoop on the bombing suspect. Rockwell is an exemplar of decency, fighting for his friend even when the whole world has turned against him – but Houser is the true wonder of the film, fully embodying the real-life Jewell on every level in an absolutely stunning and immersive performance.
The story here is so incredible that Eastwood wisely lays it out with a straightforward approach that barely uses a musical score and just lets the viewer dive into the nightmare Richard endured. The panicked moments leading up to the bomb detonating wring maximum tension and round the film out as a strongly emotional experience. It’s hard to believe that he’s pulling off this big a film at 89 years old.
While Eastwood handles the bombing and its deadly aftermath in a harrowing yet still tasteful way, the movie does dish out foul language throughout, so fair warning to those who might be particularly offended by that. But this is a tough story well told, and while “Richard Jewell” isn’t a lighthearted romp or a romance, it is a movie that will give you plenty to talk about afterwards.